The right to vote is exactly that: a right. Not a reward that must be earned, not a privilege that can be revoked. In a nation founded on the promise of representative democracy, voting is one of the most sacred and fundamental rights we have — so much so that the right to vote is effectively synonymous with citizenship itself. So why do we allow millions of Americans to be stripped of that right, their citizenship effectively revoked, because of felony convictions? These Americans are still citizens, and should still be able to exercise their right to vote — even those who are currently serving their sentences.
The Sentencing Project estimates that over 5 million citizens in this country can’t vote because of a felony conviction – and of those, roughly 75% are living in the community, and 25% are serving their sentences behind bars. There is a growing and urgently-needed movement toward “universal suffrage” that would reinstate their right to vote, and protect their ability to participate in the choices we make together as a democratic nation.
Felony disenfranchisement laws do not serve any legitimate legal purpose, nor do they meaningfully deter unlawful behavior. They do far more harm than good. Studies show that disenfranchisement undermines rehabilitation and hinders re-entry. Meanwhile, one recent study found that participation in voting actually decreased recidivism. So why are disenfranchisement laws so widespread?
It’s impossible to discuss the purpose and history of felony disenfranchisement laws without looking at them in the context of our history of slavery and Jim Crow. The criminal justice system – from arrest to jury selection to sentencing – has a deep and deeply racist history, and disenfranchisement laws allow those who seek to restrict the voting rights of Black people to exploit the racist application of criminal laws.
But while the story begins there, it’s not the whole story. Today, felony disenfranchisement laws impact Americans of all backgrounds, especially poor and rural white communities, veterans, and those living with substance abuse issues.
The loss of voting rights, and with it, the essence of our American citizenship, is no small thing. I’ve seen firsthand what it means to individuals, through my work supporting re-enfranchisement efforts in Florida, Louisiana, Illinois, Oregon and California.
Florida is an especially encouraging example, as it offers proof that both Democratic and Republican voters are united on the issue of restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions, at least for those who have been released from prison. Over 60% of people in Florida voted for Amendment 4 in 2018, even though Republicans won statewide offices that year.
I was an early supporter of Amendment 4. We partnered with Desmond Meade at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. We shared people’s stories. Asked neighbors to talk with neighbors. And when the time came, we didn’t win 60% of the vote. We won close to 65%. We passed a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to more than 1.4 million Floridians.
A year later, I stood in a Florida courthouse as a judge made it official for a room full of formerly-incarcerated people. Some of these people hadn’t voted in decades and hadn’t really felt connected to their communities at all since their incarceration. But many said that this one moment made them feel like they fully belonged again. Like they were part of something bigger.
This sense of belonging — of unity, hope and love, in a nation that feels profoundly divided — is reason enough to support the idea of universal suffrage. But there are practical reasons as well. Prisoners are directly and profoundly impacted by decisions made by political leaders, maybe more so than many of us, since so much of their lives in prison are controlled by the people running the prisons. In support of an Oregon bill to extend voting rights to people in prison in Oregon, D.C. Councilmember Robert C. White, Jr. testified:
“Far from the images we would conjure from movies and extreme television shows, what you will find is an overwhelming number of people trying to figure out how they will get their lives back on track and contribute to their families and the broader society. They will tell you what is working for rehabilitation, and job training and medical care. That’s the beauty of democracy, when it works as it should. So, as elected officials in charge of the governments that incarcerate these residents, we should not want to lose our accountability to rehabilitation and public safety. By restoring the voices of those residents, we open the door to a more representative and responsive government.”
People in prison have something to say and they have a unique perspective that all of us need to hear. When we deny people in prison the right to vote, we are essentially saying: “Your voice doesn’t matter. We don’t need to hear from you. You don’t have anything to contribute.”
That’s not only morally wrong, it’s shortsighted.
Ultimately, there is no foundational democratic principle for stripping incarcerated residents of their right to vote. Indeed, two states — Maine and Vermont – never had restrictions on voting. And in recent years, we have seen a lot of state legislative activity in this area. In a year where hundreds of bills attacking our freedom to vote are on the move, voting rights restoration is one trend in voting rights headed in the right direction. Earlier this year, Connecticut, New York, and Washington all passed laws restoring voting rights to citizens on parole, joining New Jersey and California from the year before.
The movement to restore voting rights for the formerly incarcerated is overwhelmingly popular with voters across the political spectrum. A Pew Research Center poll from April found that 55% of Republicans and 84% of Democrats support the restoration of voting rights for people after they have served their sentence.
And while voting rights for currently incarcerated people remains a more controversial subject, we’re seeing more places start to look at the issue, and we’re seeing some positive changes happening. Washington D.C. restored the right to vote to incarcerated people last year. That meant people from D.C. who are in prison got to take part in the elections last November, which was a big deal for them and for our democracy.
Universal enfranchisement also protects against “de facto disenfranchisement” — i.e., the process by which confusion and misinformation around voting after a felony conviction leads many people with past convictions — and election officials — to believe wrongly that they cannot vote, even if they are eligible.
And, at a moment when voting rights are under attack in state legislatures around the country, the promise of universal suffrage has never been more important.
The principle of “one person, one vote” is the very foundation of our democracy. We’ve failed to live up to our best ideals before, of course. It’s not lost on me that, in the early days of America, voting – and therefore citizenship – was a privilege reserved for white men alone. But America has always been about striving to be better — as a nation, and as individuals. And we are a better, stronger, more just nation when we choose unity over exclusion, rehabilitation over retribution, and, above all else, when we embrace the quintessentially American promise of a second chance.
John Legend is an artist and activist who made history as the first African American man to join the prestigious EGOT club. The 12-time Grammy Award-winner released his seventh studio album, Bigger Love, in 2020 and will launch his nationwide Bigger Love Tour in September. Legend is currently a judge on the Emmy-nominated show “The Voice” and a principal in Get Lifted Film and TV production company. As an activist, Legend initiated the FREEAMERICA campaign to change the conversation surrounding criminal justice policies and to end mass incarceration.